Drilling for natural gas will soon be coming to Western Maryland, splitting camps into those who think it is no different than other industries and others with environmental concerns. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun video)
Marylanders have long held serious misgivings about the use of hydraulic fracturing to drill for natural gas, and we have shared those concerns. Under the administrations of both Gov. Larry Hogan and his predecessor, Martin O'Malley, there have been efforts by the Maryland Department of the Environment to adopt what Democrats and Republicans alike have vowed would be the strictest fracking regulations in the country. Yet over and over again, there have been doubts about whether the protections involved — to ensure clean drinking water supplies and preserve Western Maryland's scenic resources — would be adequate.
The most recent rules, as drafted by the Hogan administration and now under review, are no different. And as the nation's natural gas glut continues — to the extent that even oil industry advocates doubt that Maryland is likely to attract much drilling even if a temporary ban on fracking is lifted — many are asking, why risk fracking at all?
We agree. It's a bad bet. When members of the Maryland General Assembly reconvene next month, high on the agenda should be making permanent the temporary moratorium on fracking that is set to expire next year. Fracking advocates have failed to make the case that the economic value of recovering gas from the Marcellus Shale deposits outweighs the potential economic and environmental harm that accompanies it.
And it's highly likely that a majority of Maryland residents agree with that position. That was the conclusion of a recent poll conducted by OpinionWorks for the Don't Frack Maryland Coalition, which found support for a fracking ban even in Western Maryland. In all, the survey determined that state residents favored a ban by a 56-28 margin with 16 percent undecided.
This is not a position we take lightly. Western Maryland has an unemployment rate above the statewide average — between 4.4 and 5.2 percent by county compared to the statewide average of 4.0 percent. But it is also highly dependent on tourism, with scenic attractions like Deep Creek Lake, the Youghiogheny River, Swallow Falls State Park, the C&O Canal and many others that are a key part of the state's $16.4 billion visitor business. Even if fracking doesn't cause immediate harm to any of those attractions, how might public perception of the region change?
Still, it isn't just a matter of image. The risks posed by fracking are real. Often, the problem is the method of disposal for wastewater from well injection sites — the technology involves forcing a mixture of water, chemicals and sand under high pressure into underground rock to release trapped gas — and its impact on local groundwater. In neighboring West Virginia, for example, the U.S. Geological Survey found Wolf Creek in Fayette County contaminated with sodium, chloride, strontium, lithium and radium traced to a nearby underground well.
But that's not all. The potential adverse impacts include damage to human health, clean air and water; excessive noise pollution and even microearthquakes. That doesn't mean fracking can't be done relatively safely compared to, say, coal mining or logging, which have also operated in Western Maryland, but it does mean that the potential for adverse impacts, even accidental ones, is quite high — the sheer volume of water required (as much as 7 million gallons to frack a single well) practically dictates that.
And even if Maryland dropped the moratorium and adopted the MDE rules, it's unlikely there's going to be any gold rush to purchase or extend gas leases. That's what makes an outright ban the safest possible wager — the resource won't be going away; it will remain buried in those shale deposits like a savings account. If at some future date, the risk is more manageable and the demand for the resource is more robust, perhaps the moratorium can be revisited. In the interim, Maryland will learn more from the mistakes of neighboring states.
That makes a ban on fracking a win-win for everyone, except perhaps the U.S. oil and gas industry. But even they may not complain too much given the multitude of more pressing problems from falling demand and low prices to high production from Middle East competitors. If Maryland earns a national reputation for being ultra-cautious about its precious water resources, so much the better.